Always a Pistol, always Showtime
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich" by Mark Kriegel. Copyright 2007 by Mark Kriegel. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Chapter 12: Showtime
For father [Press Maravich] and son [Pete], working at the edge of art and science produced a kind of vaudeville. "Showtime," as they called it, toured the state, hitting towns like Shreveport and Alexandria, enticing the people, provoking their gossip, selling them on Tiger basketball. Each LSU player had his own Homework Basketball drill to display as a specialty. But the main attraction -- nay, the only attraction -- was Pete. His skills were more than a mere draw. "Pete was an advertising campaign," says Bud Johnson, the athletic department's publicity man. As for Press, he was barnstorming again, a basketball Barnum like Jim Furey of the Original Celtics or Abe Saperstein of the Globetrotters.
"Press would do the talking; Pete would do the dribbling, the passing, and the spinning," says Russ Bergman. "They would experiment. They had to keep coming up with new stuff, like a circus act. If they were going into a new town, they'd say, 'Showtime's got to get better.' Then Pete would start adding to his bag of tricks."
Every Thursday night Pete took the stage. "Can't miss Showtime," said Schayes. "I bring the family."
More than the old pros, though, Pete had a hold on the kids. Campers looked forward to his ballhandling exhibitions as the highlight of their week. Teenagers like M. L. Carr, from Charlotte, idolized him, rehearsing the Homework Basketball routines until they could do them in their sleep. "I knew I couldn't be like Pete," says Carr. "But I did every drill religiously."
Carr attended the camp with a buddy from home, among the first blacks to attend the summer sessions at Buies Creek. Pete wasn't like anyone they had ever met. "He didn't see black or white -- he picked us as his guys," says Carr, who followed him around like a puppy all week long.
At sixteen, Carr had a sense of the game and its stylistic antecedents, the most current being black. He knew about Earl "the Pearl" Monroe from Winston-Salem State Teachers College, author of the spin dribble. He knew of Providence's Jimmy Walker and his famous crossover, a change of hands dribble that made the quickest defenders look slow. Then there was Archie Clark, who had perfected the stutter step, a hesitation move. "But Pete," says Carr, "was the best I'd ever seen. Once he started doing all that stuff with the ball I was in awe. He did things the Globetrotters couldn't do yet."
In fact, Pete was already being called "a bleached Globetrotter." But unlike the Globetrotters, for whom antics now overwhelmed athletics, Pete made his moves in authentic game conditions. The competition was high level, high stakes, the expectations increasing at an exponential rate.
With the droopy socks and a head of hair that was now vaguely Beatle-esque, there was a growing sense that Pistol Pete would morph into something more iconic than just a basketball player. In anticipation of his varsity debut, Press saw to it that LSU had a new pep band and a squadron of pom-pom girls. He arranged to videotape Pete's games and the Homework Basketball drills. Left to Press, there would be a fully documented record of exactly how he and his son had conspired to change the game.
Press was not alone in forecasting Pete's greatness. "He's as good as any basketball player I've ever seen," said Doug Moe, a two-time All-American at North Carolina. Moe, who was six-six, 220 pounds, based this opinion on a series of spirited one-on-ones that summer at Campbell. Then a rookie with the New Orleans Buccaneers of the upstart American Basketball Association, Moe bet a teammate that the kid would average 35 points a game as a sophomore.
In fact, Pete came out of the gate averaging 45 points on 42 percent shooting. "I'm in a slump," he said.
As Press's design never accounted for a slumping Pete, LSU had little margin for error. The Tigers were woefully short, not to mention woefully short on experience. There wasn't a senior on the roster. The recruits included a couple of junior college transfers: a six-seven All-American from Iowa, Steve Shumaker, and Rich Lupcho, an otherwise unwanted guard from Coffeyville (Kansas) Junior College by way of Aliquippa. Of the two, Press was partial to the undersized Lupcho -- "five eight in elevator shoes," as he was described -- who just happened to be Joe Pukach's nephew. There were never enough guards to please Press, who continued to start Hickman and Tribbett. "Just dumb luck," says Tribbett, still chuckling over his good fortune to have started as a sophomore. "It just so happened that we walked into such a horseshit basketball program."
By Press's calculation, Pete would have to shoot 40 times a game for LSU to have a chance of winning. Not only did the theory violate every strategic principle of the game, it had never been done. Shooting at such an absurdly rapid rate -- better than a shot a minute -- would prove physically and psychologically grueling. Pete's number 23 might as well have been replaced with a bull's eye. As a coach, Press understood the burden this would place on his son; as a father, he could live with it. "He's got more pressure on him than any kid in America," he said.
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As Pete's varsity career began, signs of this stress were less than apparent. Early in the season, after LSU beat Texas handily on the road, veteran Southeastern Conference referee Charles McCarthy went out for a bite and a couple of beers. He was walking back to his hotel in the wee hours when he heard the most goddawful attempt at singing. McCarthy turned to gaze on the happy, if melodically challenged crooner. He had a coed on each arm.
"Hey, Mr. Charlie," exclaimed Pete, "how you doing?"
By now, Pete's game had become the subject of some discussion among league officials. Coming down full stride on the break, he had a move whereby he would wave his hand over the ball, then tip it with the other hand in the opposite direction. It looked, in the most literal sense, like a magic trick. Such apparent impossibility moved a ref to blow his whistle, signaling a traveling violation.
"How can you make that call?" said an outraged Pete. "You've never even seen that move."
In fact, the call became the subject of an SEC officials' meeting. The refs examined the tape until, at long last, they had to shake their heads in grudging agreement with the kid: He might be right.
Suddenly, calling LSU games had become a complicated proposition. Guys like McCarthy wanted to work only with experienced partners. If you were teamed with a guy who hadn't been around, he might go into shock seeing Pete for the first time.
Officials had to rethink the game as it pertained to the league's new sensation. "One thing you didn't want to do is foul him out of the game," says Charlie Bloodworth, another veteran SEC official. "Pete put more people in the seats than anybody."
To whistle Pete for a foul was to incur the wrath of Press. "You son of a bitch," he would holler, "you foul him out and these people are gonna go crazy. They didn't come to see you call the game, they came to see him play."
Everybody wanted to see the Pistol. Fan mail arrived at the LSU athletic department by the sackful. Practices became targets of opportunity for groupies and autograph seekers. His prized practice socks were pilfered from the trainer's laundry bags. That's when Pete started washing them himself, a ritual cleansing with Woolite over a slopsink in the trainer's room. Those socks were talismans; teenage boys began to abuse their own white hosiery until they were acceptably gray and droopy. And this was in football country.
Reporters from Georgia and Mississippi who had never even been to a basketball game started making themselves seen. Suddenly, games in places like Oxford and Athens and Tuscaloosa were selling out. Visiting Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum, a venue that held fewer than 11,000, Pete drew 14,200, described as the biggest basketball crowd in the state's history. Down in Tuscaloosa, at Alabama -- a shrine to Bear Bryant's gridiron glories -- 15,014 turned out for LSU, the most people ever at an SEC basketball game.
With Pete in the house, big gyms seemed like stadiums, and mere bandboxes felt as if they had been transformed into great arenas. Many of these evenings concluded with fans standing to cheer in appreciation of the road team.
Among the first of these occasions was the night of January 11, 1968, at Tulane's home court in New Orleans. A gym that held about 4,400 had been packed well beyond capacity. LSU's pregame routine included layup lines with Pete going through his repertoire of tricks as he fed each player cutting to the basket. It wasn't only the audience that found itself enthralled; opposing players couldn't take their eyes off him. "You were never supposed to look at your opponent during warm-ups," says Johnny Arthurs, a high-scoring forward for Tulane. "But there we were: watching Pete put on a show."
In preparation for the game, Tulane coach Tom Nissalke had spent a great deal of time studying films. His shot charts indicated that Pete went right 90 percent of the time. The best way to play him, Nissalke concluded, was to force him the other way. "Make him go left," Nissalke kept hollering from the sidelines. "He can't go left."
Pete went left for 52 points and 8 assists that night. But his line doesn't begin to tell the story. "I've never seen a righthanded player throw a lefthanded behind-the-back bounce pass going full speed on a two-on-one fast break -- and hit the outside man in stride for a layup," wrote the States-Item's Peter Finney.
Then there was this, from George Sweeney's lead in the next day's Times-Picayune:
"It had a revival atmosphere.
The 6,000 partisan Tulane fans who took up all the available space -- sitting and standing -- left the Wave Freret St. gym believers last night.
Those who didn't express themselves verbally, just mumbled in amazement.
That's the way Pete Maravich has left 'em this season ... "
Pistol Pete's worksheet for the evening was worth a two-minute standing ovation by everyone in the house except the Tulane bench.
The story appeared under the headline "Greenies Are Believers," though some of the Tulane players remained unconvinced. "I remember looking at the films after the game," says Arthurs. "Pete had a move where he got out on the break and dribbled between his legs and then behind his back. We made the coach replay it again and again and again because no one believed he actually did it."
It was the kind of move that prompted Bud Johnson to wonder. Every so often, Pete would do something he had never done before. On those occasions, Bud would ask, "Hey Pete, how come I never saw you practice that one."
"Oh yes I have," Pete would say. "Many times."
"In my head."
In my head.
In a flash, as anticipation met circumstance, Pete produced a collective gasp, a beguiling instant widely interpreted as improvisational wit. And no one was more vulnerable to the seductive power of these moments than the man who had made it possible. To Press, these were the sacred seconds, a synthesis of conceptual art and performance art. Here was the payoff, the ecstasy, the high, the justification for his addiction to Pete. Finally, he could lose himself. As he told Time magazine that season, "I get to the point where I don't coach him. I just watch."
Typically, Rich Lupcho sat on the bench next to the coach. Press would slap him on the knee when Pete did something extraordinary. "Did you see that?" Press would holler.
He had become as much a spectator as a coach.
"He lived in awe of what Pete created," says Bud Johnson.
Which is to say, what he had created.
Les Robinson joined the team in Gainesville just after New Year's when the Tigers were playing Florida. Press assigned Les a seat on the bench and had him keep track of Pete's assists and steals, which he thought were being deliberately undercounted by opposing teams' statisticians. "They're screwing him everywhere he goes, Les."
The legend of Pistol Pete still lives on in the Bayou.
The defeat was less troubling to Les than what he now saw in his mentor. "He wasn't the same coach I knew at N.C. State," says Robinson. "He had already become obsessed with Pete's numbers. He had gone from being one of the greatest coaches in the game to the coach of the greatest player in the game. That's the only criticism I have of Coach Maravich: he loved his son too much."
Others, including some of Press's oldest coaching cronies, were less diplomatic. They saw Pete's shot selection as an endorsement of selfish play. Not that Press would be deterred by mere criticism. "I wish he'd shoot a thousand times a game," he said.
In Pete's first season of varsity ball, LSU improved from 3-23 to 14-12, while violating the game's every orthodoxy, not to mention the very principles that made Press -- proponent of ensemble basketball, erstwhile creator of the junto defense -- a great coach in the first place. Though he had long arms and great anticipation -- the physical tools to be a great defender -- Pete couldn't be bothered with defense. "Pete had to work so damn hard on offense," says Rich Hickman, "he used defense to rest."
Once again, John Wooden chalked it up to the enigma of Press. "If any of my players made a behind-the-back pass," says John Wooden, "they'd be sitting on the bench. Same thing with the dunk. I didn't permit any of that."
It's worth noting that the NCAA voted to outlaw the dunk in 1967. The move was considered a preemptive sanction against Lew Alcindor. In a larger sense, it was a sanction against a still-emerging black style of basketball. Literally and metaphorically, the NCAA had found a way to keep the black man down. And yet, this wasn't solely a racial matter. The issue concerned propriety, modesty, and the limits of athletic expression. How much would be tolerated in America's student athletes? (Very little, in the case of Alcindor, as Wooden didn't allow his players to be interviewed.) These weren't hippies or yippies, after all. These were good kids, maybe the last kind of good kids. These were ballplayers.
For the dons of the NCAA, the prototype was still Bill Bradley, whose greatness had been, in part, a rebuke of flamboyance. On the eve of his first varsity season, Pete held out the spectacularly na´ve hope that he, too, might actually blend in. "Just another fish in the pond," he said, explaining that he wanted to be known as a winner, not a scorer.
But that wasn't Press's plan. Nor was it Pete's nature. So now here came the Pistol, whose game was immodest, flagrantly attention seeking, irresistible. He commanded the attention of all eyes in the house. Another fish in the pond? He'd have a better chance of growing gills. The crowd nourished a rapturous urge in him. "The louder it got, the more pumped up he became," says Billy Simmons. "The crowd was like a drug to him. You could see it in his eyes."
Opposing teams devised any number of ways to deal with Pete. Unable to force him left or right, recalls one former Tulane player, "the only real option was to hit him. And let me tell you, he got roughed up a lot." The arduousness of Pete's undertaking seemed to register on his face. Those same soft pop star features contorted to form a pained mask as he dodged defenders on his way to the basket. Physical abuse may have raised the degree of difficulty, but it would not detract from his game. Despite his reedlike body, Pete had the heart to take it.
As far as sanctioned strategies, the most common were the box and one or the triangle and two, zone defenses with one or two defenders shadowing Pete wherever he went on the court. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp had another idea. Knowing that Pete could get his points even if double- and triple-teamed, Rupp decided to cover Pete with a single defender and make sure no one else did any real damage. Of course, with so much more talent at every other position, Kentucky could afford to let Pete get his points.
The coach who had the most success against Pete was Tennessee's Ray Mears. Press had disliked Mears since his days at State, when the Vols' coach had the bad form to call time-out in the closing moments of a Tennessee victory. Press had vowed to get even, though it was beginning to look as if that would not happen in his natural lifetime.
"Press wanted Pete to be his glory boy, so I studied Pete," says Mears. "I put in a lot of time figuring out how to give him trouble." Not only did Mears have excellent talent at his disposal, but he decided to keep a minimum of two very physical defenders on Pete at all times. If that wasn't working, he used three. When playing LSU, he says, "you didn't have to worry about the other guys."
Tennessee disrupted Pete's path in a half-court set, pushing him toward the middle as he tried to run the baseline. Still, Pete did his best work on the break. And here, Mears identified the weakness in Press's design, just as Press had noticed it in Cam Henderson's attack all those years before in West Virginia.
He deployed his players to prevent the first pass. As the ball was being inbounded, the Vols were already swarming around Pete. "We cut off the pass to him," says Mears. "That stopped him from running. His father was highly upset with me."
As a sophomore Pete averaged 19 points against Tennessee -- but 45.8 against everyone else.
For a time, the national media tried to make the collegiate scoring title a three-horse race between Niagara's Calvin Murphy, Purdue's Rick Mount, and Pete. But the numbers couldn't sustain much suspense, as Pete won going away. He scored more points (1,138) than any sophomore in history. He set records for most field goals (432) and most field goal attempts (1,022) and the highest single-season scoring average (43.8). He was named to five different All-America teams and voted the SEC's Most Valuable Player. On December 22, 1967 -- seven games into his varsity career -- he eclipsed Bob Pettit's single-game SEC scoring record against Mississippi State. On January 29 -- a day after sitting out practice with a 104-degree fever -- he went for 54 against Vanderbilt. On February 17, he scored 59 against Alabama, setting, for the second time that season, the single-game SEC record. In all, he hit the 50-point mark nine times that season.
The fascination with Pete's scoring might not have made for sound team basketball, but it was great box office. Press went so far as to float the idea of putting a floor down in LSU's 68,000-seat football stadium. Why not? he figured: "The Globetrotters do it all the time."
Like the Globetrotters, Pistol Pete had become an attraction that transcended the game. After a while, wins and losses almost seemed beside the point. There were other kinds of victories, ones measured in fame and fortune. A country songwriter named Woody Jenkins would compose "The Ballad of Pistol Pete":
Maravich, oh Maravich
Talk of you in years to come
How you could pass, how you could run